The goal of the book is to help us learn to interrogate our instincts and intuitions by examining the social, emotional, linguistic, and (necessarily) reductionistic way our intuitive thinking works.

Takeaway: How we are incentivized not to think.

Using psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s terms from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jacobs outlines two ‘systems’ of thinking: ‘System 1’ is ‘intuitive thinking, the fast kind (p. 16). ‘System 2’ is ‘conscious reflection’, the slow kind of thinking (p. 16). ‘We go through life basically running System 1; System 2 kicks in only when we perceive a problem, an inconsistency, an anomaly that needs to be addressed’ (pp. 16-17). Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares ‘intuitive thinking’ to an elephant, and ‘conscious decision-making’ to a ‘rider’; ‘intuitive thinking is immensely powerful and has a mind of its own, but can be gently steered— by a rider who is truly skillful and understands the elephant’s inclinations’ (p. 17). The aim of the book is to help us understand the way ‘System 1’ works, the inclinations of our intuitive thinking, so that we can employ System 2 properly to evaluate it.

Why we don’t want to think (exact words from p. 17):

  • Thinking troubles us
  • Thinking tires us
  • Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits
  • Thinking can complicate our lives
  • Thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those qw admire or love or follow
  • Thinking is slow

Marilyn Robinson, writing on why Puritans are almost always referenced in a negative light, suggests that we have a ‘collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information’ ‘when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’ (pp. 20-21).

T. S. Elliot wrote that ‘…”when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts” ’ (p. 22).

‘The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear’ (p. 23).

Chapter 1: Beginning to Think
Takeaway: How thinking is social and emotional, not just analytical.
Thinking is necessarily social.
Thinking is not simply analytical.
Thinking is emotional.
‘…one must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action’ (p. 43).

‘…when your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really life’ (p. 44).

Chapter 2: Attractions
Takeaway: How the desire to belong makes us lazy or evil.
Haidt argues that ‘moral intuitions’ bind and blind. ‘ “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices” ‘ (p. 55).

C. S. Lewis’ ‘Inner Ring’ is a helpful way of describing how the terror of being excluded from a desired group makes a person ‘ “who is not yet very bad…do very bad things” ‘(p. 56).

Friendships are different than an ‘Inner Ring’ because they are not formed for the purpose of being exclusive; the exclusion is a by-product. They do not view their bond as making them superior.

Friendships matter, especially in formative seasons.

‘The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning…’ (p. 59).

‘The only remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted’ (p. 62).

Chapter 3: Repulsions
Takeaway: How the will to survive leads to the hatred of others and closes our minds. 

Sometimes we are pushed to a way of thinking because of a repulsion to a particular group. The ‘desire to punish the outgrip is significant stronger’ than ‘the desire support the in-group’ (p. 73).

Avoid what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Bulverism’: ‘ “Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall” ‘ (p. 78).

The cure is to see a person not as an ‘other’ (who must be wrong), but as a ‘neighbor’ (p. 83).

The answer is not to eliminate attractions and repulsions and to be ‘purely rational’. Antonio Damasio argues in Descartes’ Error that ‘when people have limited or nonexistent emotional responses to situations, whether through injury or congenital defect, their decision-making is seriously compromised’ (p. 84).

Biases ‘reduce the decision-making load on our conscious brains’ (p. 86).

Chapter 4: The Money of Fools
Takeaway: How the power of words (keywords, metaphors, and myths) keeps us from seeing different worlds.

Don’t let words carry too heavy of a load. They can provide helpful shortcuts, but be aware of the work you’re asking them to do.

Use your opponent’s own words instead of restating it in “other words”.

Jacobs highlights two metaphors from Robin Sloan to help with this. The first is ‘method acting’, where you realize that ‘in different circumstances you could be that person’ (p. 111). The other metaphor is that of ‘dual booting’, where a computer can run two different operating systems. Jacobs writes, ‘Something similar happens when you try out someone else’s vocabulary: you experience the world from within that mode of describing it, with a new set of “terministic screens”, and some things you’re used to seeing disappear from view while new and different ones suddenly become visible’ (p. 112).

Chapter 5: The Age of Lumping
Takeaway: How taxonomies prevent information overload and create solidarity, but can lead to oppression if we don’t remember that taxonomies are provisional and if we fail to see the individual.

Taxonomies– the sorting of things into categories– is part of ordering the world. But the creation of social taxonomies is ‘a form of myth making’, so ‘we absolutely must remember what those taxonomies are: temporary, provisional intellectual structures whose relevant will not always be what it is, or seems to be, today’ (p. 119).

We must also practice ‘splitting’— the ‘disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work’ (p. 121). Be careful when you are tempted to explain something in someone as being because they are a member of a particular group and not because that is who they are as an individual.

Chapter 6: Open and Shut
Takeaway: How keeping an open mind is not possible, but closing it is dangerous. 

One cannot have a perpetually open mind. The object of opening one’s mind is not simply to have it open, but rather, as Chesterton noted, it is like ‘ “the opening of the mouth” ‘— the object is ‘ “to shut it again on something solid” ‘ (p. 126).

The goal is to be neither indifferent nor indecisive, but to have ‘the mental flexibility and honesty to adjust our views when the facts change’ (p. 127).

One of the biggest obstacles to being open to alternative views and narratives is the ‘sunk cost’ bias. ‘The more people have invested in a particular project, the more reluctant they are to abandon it, no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause’ (p. 129). This eventually leads to doubling down, what scholars call ‘ “escalation of commitment” ‘ in the face of sunk costs (p. 129).

A fanatic is someone who avoids ‘considering any alternative to their preferred views’; ‘no matter happens, it proves [their] point’ (p. 136).

Look for signs of this in your group of friends. One giveaway that they are an unhealthy group (perhaps an ‘Inner Ring’) is if they have closed attitudes toward ‘ideas from the outgroup’ (p.138).

Chapter 7: A Person, Thinking
Learn fluency in another ‘dialect’. Imagine yourself in a different set of plausibility structures to see that your views are not necessarily inevitable.

Nevertheless, one cannot thrive in a constant state of evaluating the ‘truth-condusiveness of your social world’. Instead, follow the advice of W. H. Auden: ‘ “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt be gone.” ‘

The Thinking Person’s Checklist (pp. 155-156):

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes…
  2. Value learning over debating…
  3. …avoid the people who fan the flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your future and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate…toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with…
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the ‘ick factor’ is telling; sometime’s it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

One thought on “‘How to Think’: A Summary

  1. Thanks for providing the “shortcut”/summary version of this book. A friend recently introduced me to the writing of Jacobs (articles and essays)–now, I want to tackle one of his books. This will hold me over until summer “free reading time.”

    Liked by 1 person

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